Lessons learned in losing for LeBron

Maybe the losing is exactly what LeBron James needs, to make him work harder in the summer months, to be better in the most difficult moments of the playoffs, to soften the edges on a public persona that is keeping him from being viewed sympathetically, which he surely wants.

Despite appearing to enjoy the role of the villain, LeBron is anything but. If he was, he wouldn't have cared that folks thought he was dismissive of the common man Sunday night after losing Game 6. He wouldn't have wondered publicly whether his less-than-stellar play contributed to Miami losing the NBA Finals to Dallas.

Losing almost always brings about greater humility, and humility almost always leads to the kind of introspection that is rare for megastars, especially ones who go by the name of "King" and have been told they are special since the age of 12, told they aren't subject to the same rules as the rest of us. Sometimes, losing publicly and to great ridicule is the only thing that serves as a stop sign.

Let's face it: This player inspires more conversation than anybody in professional basketball, maybe more than any single athlete in professional sports in America today. And he's entering the first summer of his life when he isn't mostly adored; instead, he's entering a summer when suddenly some league officials wonder if he needs to consciously tend to his image, when his great potential no longer matters, but the increasing perception that he has underperformed relative to the all-time greats in his sport does.

The several days after the loss have found LeBron in a much more likable place than he was the night of. Instead of answers that sounded like alibis and handoffs -- many took his postgame comments to mean something like "I'm driving back to my mansion beneath the palm trees beside still waters in my convertible Bentley, while the rest of you people drive your hybrids back to your third-floor walkups and your ordinary lives" -- he seemed by Tuesday to be dealing more squarely with the reality of being a god in the culture of professional sports: Win or accept the consequences. Asked about being a lot less than great during the six-game loss to the Mavericks, LeBron told reporters in what amounted to an exit session: "I didn't play up to my own standards. Did that cost us the Finals? I don't know. I'm not satisfied with my performance."

Of greater importance was LeBron realizing (or being made to realize) that annoying people because he hooked up with two other All-Stars is a lot less problematic than angering people (even some of his own fans, perhaps) because he came off in defeat as coddled and arrogant beyond reason. Call me naive, but I believe LeBron meant it sincerely when he said his comments an hour or less after losing Game 6 were "interpreted different than what I wanted. Everybody has to move on with their lives and I do, too. … I wasn't saying I'm superior to anyone."

What LeBron will have to learn quickly is that when you don't win and you're not a true villain (a villain wouldn't care in the first place), you'd better show people a little humility -- even if you make more than $100 million, and even if you're 26 years old with half a career still in front of you. You'd better show them that losing hurts you at least as much as it hurts the people who buy your jerseys and call themselves your fans. That's why the most critical thing LeBron said Tuesday was probably, "Everything that has to do with a low in your life describes what I'm feeling right now."

That, even the most passionate LeBron haters would admit, rings of real honest emotion, of hurt, of not being above it or detached from it.

Dirk Nowitzki already knows how LeBron feels. Five years ago, after the Mavericks blew a 2-0 lead to Miami in the 2006 Finals, Nowitzki faced the kind of criticism LeBron faces now. OK, not the volume, but it was much the same tone. Nowitzki was called soft, lame, a loser. "Getting hammered" is how Nowitzki described it. Surely, he felt the people ripping him were, in many cases, losers who should go back to their sorry little lives and leave him alone. But if he did, he didn't say anything that could be interpreted as such.

In a conversation Tuesday, much of which aired on "Pardon the Interruption," Dirk talked about working harder on some parts of his game that needed shoring up (such as developing post-up skills and defending), about realizing that -- with the departure of former teammates Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel and Steve Nash -- it was now his job, no matter how naturally shy he is, to push himself to lead.

It took Nowitzki a while to figure it out, then to put it all together. He was by then north of 30. And even then, there was no guarantee the Mavericks could win a championship. Dirk's immediate results, in fact, went from bad (the 2006 Finals) to worse (a first-round loss in 2007 as a No. 1 seed in the West). There were three first-round losses in four years, including just last season. The losing, Dirk suspected then and has confirmed now, only hardened his resolve to work like hell until he was in a much better place competitively.

LeBron, most likely, is getting his first whiff of what losing does to a man, as well as what it can do for him. To more than a few people following the NBA playoffs, including current players and coaches, LeBron and his team look an awful lot like front-runners, guys who will throw it down on your head and look nearly invincible when things are going well, but confused and reticent when things are not. Playoff form suggests it, too. Miami ran up a 3-0 lead on Philly, then jumped on the Celtics 2-0.

The team that had a chance to really put the "front-runners" theory to the test was the Chicago Bulls. Up 2-0 with the series moving to Miami, all the pressure would have been on the Heat for the first time in the playoffs. But the Bulls blew a golden chance late and the series was tied 1-1. The Bulls had not knocked Miami out of its comfort zone. Nobody did that until Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when Dallas erased that big deficit and came back to tie it, 1-1.

Series on; Miami not quite up to it.

(The front-runner theory includes the important information that LeBron, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, within shouting distance of an NFL team and a MLB team, claims to be a fan of both the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Is there anything easier than aligning yourself with the Cowboys and Yankees? For the most part, that helps you avoid dealing with losing and how it makes you feel, doesn't it?)

It's said that the greatest athletes hate losing more than they love winning. Probably, LeBron thought he was leaving losing behind when he left Cleveland and hooked up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But if he thought it was that easy to get away from losing, apparently he was wrong. Maybe this time he'll realize that offseason dedication and acquiring a little humility are two conditions that the disease of losing ought to leave permanently attached to a superstar.

If what we saw from LeBron on Tuesday was any indication, he has finally taken a first step in the right direction.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.